Mom enrolled only me at Saint Clare’s Catholic parochial school, a few blocks from Washington grade and Santa Clara High public schools which my brothers attended.
When living in rural farm homes, I sneaked on the public-school bus with my brothers, hopped off with them at their school and walked the 2 blocks to Saint Clare’s. After school, I traipsed back over, got in the school bus line, clambered on in the rush with others and returned exited with my brothers. The other kids never revealed my stowaway status but in hindsight, I suspect the bus driver knew.
Public school also provided another perk not available at parochial school. It served a cafeteria hot lunch for a quarter. To cash in, I slinked away from Saint Clare’s when the noon yard watch nun looked the other way and ambled to the cafeteria. My cheap hot meal stratagem, however, was complicated by segregated cafeteria service between grade and high school students with my lunch time when high school students were served.
I slid in the cafeteria line, a runt among giants. My pat excuse if questioned was.
“I had a special assignment which is why I’m late.”
Food, however, was plopped on my tray by the elderly women servers, my quarter accepted without questions and past the cashier, I carried my tray to a vacant chair, unmolested. I gulped my meal down in silence then scurried back to Saint Clare’s. Again, in hindsight, my stealth student cafeteria meal probably fooled none. They took my quarter without care where I went to school.
Attending parochial school isolated me and made me a loner. A rural house isolates kids by distance. I lacked common school attendance with the few near-by My school holidays were also different. Public school got out the week before Christmas and Easter, mine the week after. Classmates didn’t visit my home not only due to distance but also my embarrassment with my home turf. Cafeteria escapades kept me from lunch time activities with Saint Clare’s students, adding to my isolation.
In Tropicana Village, I left early in the morning on the city bus, got home late and was a stranger to neighbor kids. At home, I retreated to my tiny bedroom to escape family din and enjoyed my solitary status. The bedroom was my sanctuary where I studied and fantasized a world of my own, a world where I was queen.
Baptism according to Catholic tenets leaves an indelible mark on one’s soul. I can assure the nuns inculcate catechism lessons does.
In second grade I received First Communion, a major Catholic event at the age one has attained the age of reason to sin or not. Requirements were memorizing the Our Father and Hail Mary prayers and the 10 Commandments. We also learned God was three in one, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. My wonderful second grade teacher, Sister Mary Joseph, was kind and could explain complicated religious concepts in seven-year old eloquence.
With trenchant logic, she explained the Holy Trinity i. within us, God the Father is our mind, God the Son, Jesus, our heart and God the Holy Ghost our soul. When we received Holy Communion, they became one with us.
She explained we each had our own guardian angel, sent by God to protect us. Our angel was always next to us so we were never alone. When we prayed we could ask the angel to send the message to God or to whatever saint we were beseeching to ensure it was received, a form of special delivery. The angel also protected us from Satan, a fallen angel, who was lurking about to trip us into evil.
She described the Blessed Virgin Mary as a super Mom who we could always call on in a pinch. I frequently made those calls later in life. Each saint had its unique place in heaven and heard our pleas if prayed to. They would then put in a good word for us in their trouble shooting specialty before God.
Other more sophisticated theological aspects were also introduced. Heaven and hell had been introduced in first grade. Now purgatory and limbo were covered. Purgatory was like hell but not permanent. You only stayed there until your venal sins were burned off. Limbo was where unbaptized babies went. When I asked what limbo was like, the good nun described it as a nursery. I asked what happened when they got older but was told they never grew up but were comfortable, well fed and had their diapers changed.
While Mom baptized my brothers, Dad was unbaptized. I asked if he was going to Limbo but she did a theological leap and said by being a good person he was baptized by time and action as were all good non-Catholics. I don’t know if this was true theologically but it satisfied me.
She also versed us in the 10 commandments to ensure they weren’t just rote memorizations. I can still recite them:
- I am the Lord your God. You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.
- You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
- Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.
- Honor your father and your mother.
- You shall not kill.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet your neighbor's wife.
- You shall not covet your neighbor's goods.
The first was easy enough; Mom and I attended Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation so we were covered. I worried, however, about Dad and those not Catholic. Sister Mary Joseph explained they were just confused and God forgave and accepted them if they were good. When I asked.
“God’s a man?”
She winked and replied.
“No, Him, means God is everything, male, female, everything”
The second was another easy one except again I worried about Dad. He cursed in Chinese if he had bad luck or stubbed his toe. His curses, however, were explained by the good nun as against a Chinese pagan god not covered in Commandment one.
The third was easy, kind of a repeat of Number one. Again, I feared again for the rest of the family and others I knew who didn’t go to Mass on Sundays. I didn’t want to be in heaven with Mom the only one known. The kind sister said not to worry.
“They don’t sin because they don’t know better.”
This caused a flash of heresy.
“Sister is it better not to know too much?”
“No, my dear girl, if you know God, you are closer to God.”
Not wanting to pursue this further I accepted Dad and my siblings would be in heaven with me but maybe a little distant from the center of action yet still close enough for me to visit. I also figured my brother, one-year younger than me, could use a little purgatory time on this one. Purgatory in Catholicism is a temporary spot in hell where minor un-repented sins are burned off before God lets you in heaven. He was always trying to skip Sunday Mass. His infractions I wanted burned off, however, were teasing me and being a pest.
Number four was the big one back then. I worked hard on it and did what Mom asked. Dad was an easy pass. He never asked me to do anything.
Five was a no brainer, I’d never kill anyone, not even a bird with a BB gun like my brothers. When I asked about war the good nun said killing then was only against bad people God wanted dead.
Six and nine were confusing as I didn’t understand the details referred to. When questioned a bit she explained adultery as kissing or hugging when not married and nine was when a man wanted another man’s wife, kind of like stealing.
Seven, eight and ten were simple don’ts, don’t lie, steal or want to steal. While ten crossed my mind a few times, especially at Christmas and birthday parties where a girl got a present I wanted, I never stole. I never lied except when Mom told me to tell salesmen she was not home when she was. This was explained as not really lying because Mom was not home to that person.
The ten Commandments were a little more complicated than when first read and covered some things not understood. I worried a bit about my stealth public-school bus rides and cafeteria lunches but decided the Ten Commandments didn’t explicitly condemned these and it was best not to complicate things. I didn’t fret further over details, accepted Sister Mary Joseph’s explanations, memorized them and could repeat them by number out of sequence when asked.
When saying the Hail Mary prayer, I didn’t understand “Immaculate Conception” or even “Virgin” in second grade but she Explained these simply meant Mary was pure, without sin and I put them down as additional titles like, Blessed.
To this day, I mentally talk to Sister Mary Joseph. She explains complicated moral dilemmas and reconciles what I’ve done and need to do to get me back into God’s grace.
With one more memorization, I was ready for my First Confession. I memorized what I was to say. It was simple enough as tested on the good sister who was my first confessor, one who I could tell all to except bus rides and cafeteria lunches but who couldn’t wipe the sins off as she was not a man priest.
In response to the priest’s introduction I memorized my response.
“Bless you child, is this your first confession?”
“Yes, father this is my first confession.”
“What are your sins?”
“I have disobeyed my mother and did not do the dishes when first asked. I also wish I had a Schwinn bicycle like other girls.”
The priest in response would mete out the appropriate penance and I’d be free of sin after I performed my punishment. It worked. When I left the confessional with three Hail Mary’s to do, a great feeling of relief swept me as I crossed myself, quickly recited my penance re- crossed myself and was sparkling clean before God.
Mom and I made my First Communion outfit. When the big day arrived, even Dad said I looked beautiful in white, a little bride, he called me. He gave me five dollars. I doubled down on good deeds and gave each brother a dollar. He also gave me a rabbit’s foot with a brass metal case holding the stump on a little chain. He said it was for good luck in my life, his deity.
“Shu, always keep this with you, for good luck. Often in life we need a backup. Sometimes you lose. Pet it as backup to make you feel better.”
My first communion was the only time Dad went to church until I married. I was so proud he was there with Mom. I carried the rabbit’s foot to the altar with me and in life, my talisman and petted it as needed.
Sunday, the boys and girls were segregated and assembled on the church steps for photo ops. Mom brought her little Kodak. When the bells rang we were marched in, boys first filling the front pews then us girls. The boys, dressed in their little suits with a few only attired with a white shirt and tie were not the center of attention. We girls in our first communion outfits were the big act.
We stood, sat and kneeled through the Latin service until the altar boy rang the bells announcing the transubstantiation as Jesus Christ became the Eucharist host. We kneeled back straight with aching knees waiting for Sister Mary Joseph to signal our pew to the altar.
When she reached my pew, I rose with back straight with the others, kept my hands together in prayer and followed the procession to the altar, relieved my knees finally got a break. At the marble altar railing, I again knelt with hands reverently up. As I awaited my turn for the priest I felt the starched linen covering the railing, my knees again sore. As the priest approached I opened my mouth wide and extended my tongue. He priest plucked a host of Jesus Christ from the gold chalice, held it between his thumb and index finger as required, crossed it before my face and gently laid it on my stretched tongue as he blessed me in Latin.
With God in me, I bowed my head, crossed myself, rose and walked back to my pew with hands in prayer, filled with the Holy Trinity. I was, careful not to let the host touch my teeth and slowly dissolve on my tongue as told by the good sister. She had explained God didn’t like to get chewed up before entering one’s body. Kneeling in the pew a wonderful feeling of joy filled me. I experienced a shroud of light. God the Father, Jesus His only begotten Son and the Holy Ghost were united with my soul. My knees were no longer sore. It’s a mystical and emotional experience those not Catholic miss and cannot comprehend. Thereafter, I loved going to Holy Communion and did so every Sunday and on every Holy Day of Obligation. Doing so, I racked up a slew of plenary indulgences, Catholic Church tenet get out of purgatory cards, much needed later in life.
In addition to communion I loved to sing and loved Gloria in excelsis Deo, (Latin for "Glory to God in the highest") and Kyrie Eleison, (Greek for "Lord have mercy"). Even the Gregorian chant was beautiful to my ears. With an atypical contralto singing voice the nuns put me in the school choir as a semi star. In grade school with the sisters urging I decided to be a nun. Dad laughed saying I would become a penguin but Mom encouraged me and prayed it would happen.
My school papers had J M J centered on the top. This was for Jesus, Mary and Joseph, each page dedicated to the Holy Family. In my little purse, I carried a Saint Teresa's holy picture as my role model. She died a virgin rather than be raped. I also wore a Saint Christopher's medal which ensured I would have a chance to make a last confession and save my soul before I died. In school we learned death was our fate. It was drilled into us it could happen any second. This, at the time, seemed imminently possible from nuclear attack and its possibility reinforced with school air raid drills.
With Moffett Naval Air Base nearby we were part of a big X on the Russian nuke map. Periodically the air raid siren would suddenly wail to let us know we were under attack. The fifty plus students in each class marched in strict condemned silence under the direction of the nuns into the corridor. There, we formed long columns in the crowded hallway, crouched on our knees, put our foreheads on the floor, covered our heads with our arms and waited to be blown to smithereens.
As the air raid siren continued to wail, with our foreheads pressed to the floor, the stern eyes of the nuns watched to ensure no head rose, an infraction resulting in an immediate rap on the head with a nun’s wooden clicker. The clicker also served as if a death ray gun for more distant infractions in the classroom.
A few boys, despite our pending deaths still, sneaked a glance if a girl's skirt was askew revealing a thigh. The nuns patrolled looking for this mortal sin infraction. Their long habits swept the floor as they paced above us. When crouching down, I flipped a hand back to tuck my skirt snug to cover my thighs. I didn’t want to be the subject of boys snickering comments at recess.
Once the fire marshal was satisfied with our response, the siren would wail a wobble, all clear, which meant we had been bypassed for nuking, the Russian bomber were shot down or the drill was a test, the latter always the cause. With the all clear wobble, we arose and nosily marched back to our desks, impressed with our good fortune of again not being blown up by an atomic bomb.
In the classroom the nuns used the exercise as a reminder of our potential sudden death and the danger to our souls if tainted by mortal sin. It was impressed on us life on earth was fleeting but life after death was eternal. If we tripped up in this, were caught dead with even a single unconfessed mortal sin, the punishment was eternal hell. The good news was a priest’s confession could immediately clear the slate.
Hell, and its opposite, heaven were common classroom themes. For religious pictorial teaching reinforcement, the nuns kept a large roll of fantasied colored pictures on a wood frame. Standing it up in front of the class the desired picture could be flipped for the class to see during religious studies.
The vivid pictorial roll consisted of winged angels looking blissfully down from clouds, saints and martyrs, some horribly tortured, the stages of Jesus's life including crucifixion, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the fate of sinners caught with a mortal sin on their soul at death.
Hell's sinners were pictured roasting over burning sulfur, gnawed on but never eaten by wild beasts, and my favorite, cooking in giant boiling pots, each suffering their punishment for eternity. I didn't question the nun's Catholic orthodoxy but did think eternity in hell for eating meat on Friday too severe a punishment. I figured it must be punishment for being stupid. How could anyone wantonly eat meat on Friday? Our family loved seafood.
In school, I was Miss Lin and Elizabeth to the nuns. I was Lin, Liz, Lizzy, Lizard or slant eyes to classmates. While tagged “slant eyes” I never experienced racial prejudice that I recognized. Many got physical trait names. “Slant eyes” was like “big ears”, “whitey”, shorty, etc. I preferred Elizabeth but in 5th grade, I’d made the mistake of sticking out my long extendable tongue in reply to “slant eyes”. Thereafter I was nicknamed Cobra. I tried to ignore this tag, kept my tongue in but it stuck and Cobra followed me into high school.
At school the racial mix blended from white to a dark brown. There were many Portuguese, Mexicans, even a few Italians darker than me. In school teaching we were all part of God’s Mystical Body, each a piece of a larger humankind whole. I considered myself a superior part of the Mystical Body, part of the brain.
By the 8th grade we learned the evils of other faiths starting with Martin Luther and his church door orthodoxy errors. Judaism was lightly skipped over and Islam never mentioned except for the liberation of Spain when the Moors were kicked out of Granda.
One heresy perked my interest, John Calvin’s Presbyterianism tenet of predestination. God knowing all, knows all including what we did and what we will do. There is, therefore no free will. If God knows everything I will do before I do it, it means what I do is predetermined. None, even sister Mary Joseph, could give me a satisfactory explanation of our having free will if God knows everything.
While devout, interested in abstract heresy and boy shy, I still experienced boy crushes. In 8th grade I was a secret admirer. He had a Hispanic last name, Castro but was blond and blue eyed. I attended his basketball games and cherished his dribbling from the bleachers but never talked to him, afraid of being scorned.
Between 13 and 16, puberty transformed me. Hop scotch and jump rope were abandoned and I sprouted to my full,5’ 7” height and ended up being too dark, too skinny and with teeth and lips too big. My younger siblings prior to puberty called me frog or rubber lips due to my full lips. After puberty they added bean pole and duck because of my skinny long neck. Dad and my older brother retorted I was a swan confirming my neck was too long. I kept my lips pursed and my head down between shoulders.
On 8th grade graduation the "select" were chosen and gender segregated to avoid their mortal sin temptations. Notre Dame was the exclusive all girl Catholic high school in downtown San Jose for the "chosen" girls and Bellarmine, safely miles away, was for the boys. "Selection” was based on an entrance exam, school grades and probably parental influence. Catholicism also retains some of Jesus’s teaching, “Blessed are the poor”.
I and the other 26 girls in Sister Mary Emanuel’s 8th class took the Notre Dame High School entrance exam. The boys took Bellarmine’s.
On 8th grade graduation we were segregated into the "select" and those not. The "select" were further segregated by gender to avoid post puberty mortal sin temptations. Notre Dame was the exclusive all girl Catholic high school in downtown San Jose for the "select" aka "chosen" girls. Bellarmine, safely miles away, was for the boys. "Selection" for the “chosen” was based on entrance exam, school grades and probably parental influence but Catholicism also retains some of Jesus’s teaching, “Blessed are the poor”.
I and the other 26 girls in Sister Mary Emanuel’s 8th class took the Notre Dame High School entrance exam. The boys took Bellarmine’s.
Notre Dame selected me and three others as among Saint Clare’s “chosen.” While I had no parental influence, my isolation in grade school ensured good grades, I knew I aced the test based on the questions and suspected Sister Mary Emanuel played the poverty card for me. I accepted because Mom was ecstatic, I was shy of attending public high school, none ever refused and I was proud to be among the “chosen”.
With Notre Dame near Mom's work we rode the bus together. I earned my tuition and 2 dimes a day bus fare babysitting and working summers. I made my school uniforms on my little portable singer sewing machine which was simple enough, a checkered long skirt with a white blouse. The home spun marked me as one who couldn’t afford a uniform from downtown Hart's Department Store, carried specifically for Notre Dame students. I was proud to make my own and snugly looked down on girls who couldn’t sew.
My sex education during grade school consisted of misinformed school girl whispers, seeing dogs copulate and farm roosters tear out the back feathers of hens. I assumed people were stuck together after sex like dogs, sex was by male fast rear entry to squatted female and wondering what they talked about while stuck together afterwards. Mom admonished me not to let boys "touch me" or I’d get pregnant. Neither she nor the nuns talked about touching details, even later while my body changed during puberty. Alone, without direction, I purchased my first bra and Kotex pad, not unusual back then. One didn't talk about those things but if I’d stumbled Mom would have intervened. She did say,
“Boys only want puki.”
She used Tagalog when mention sex with puki being vagina.
I was prepared for menstruation from girls gossip and it occurring for me after most my age. The girls also explained more of how the boy’s penis touched a puki and laughed at my naïve assumption of being stuck together afterwards. Until my freshman year, I thought it only took one "touch" and bam you were pregnant. In my first year at Notre Dame things got clearer at the downtown library and by girls who had done it.
My breasts developed fuller than expected for skinny me. As they grew, they tingled and ached. In bed at night, cupping them in my hands as I fell asleep, I wondered when they would stop growing. I knew their expansion became noticeable when Dad and my siblings looked away from them when talking to me.
By 16, fully equipped, some boys whistled or made comments when I walked past. I didn’t understand why at first and assumed it was my long neck but after a few catcalls, I realized my breasts were the object of attention. Turning brown-red and quickly walking away encouraged them. It was my first sense of sexual power but I didn’t think of it as such. Instead I thought my breasts, like my long neck, was another deformity.
I carried my school Pee Che folder in front to avoid whistles and snickered remarks. It didn’t work.
Author Notes: Story sets the religious school background for woman who eventually commits adultery.